Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine is embracing the small screen, joining PBS' Downton Abbeyin Season 3, which premieres early next year. Shirley appears in the first two episodes as Martha Levinson, mother of Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). "I sort of had to make her personality up," Shirley says. "She is from Long Island and finally lands at Downton Abbey and sees what's happening to the place when everyone's coming back from the war." What makes Martha interesting, she adds, is "her reactions to tradition and the class system. I do my best to be kind to tradition, but frankly think it should shift."
Shirley — who will be honored by the likes of Meryl Streep, brother Warren Beatty, Sally Field, McGovern and Steven Spielberg with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award on June 24 (9/8c, TV Land) — was disappointed not to share scenes with one of her favorite characters, Mr. Bates. But she did enjoy scenes with "darling" Mr. Carson, as well as the Dowager Countess, played by old friend Maggie Smith. "Our characters' relationship is probably not what you'd think," Shirley says. "Maggie and I are both so old, we have a lot of time on us to discuss."
A longtime believer in reincarnation, Shirley adds that going to the Downton set was like "stepping back in time. The whole place seemed haunted and full of otherworldly spirits." And while she once shunned TV series work, she'd love to come back for Season 4. Shirley also hopes the spirits of friends like Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon attend her AFI tribute, unless "they're doing a script in the sky."